- November 11, 2021
I saw my first pantomime at the Liverpool Empire in 1961, yes that does date me, I was five years old and it was Humpty Dumpty starring Tommy Steele. I loved it and in fact I have seen a pantomime every year since, I’m a panto geek.
Over the years I have witnessed so many changes, the rise of pop stars in the cast, of soap stars too, the advent of the alternative panto and the specifically alternative gay panto. I’ve seen good ones and bad ones, don’t even ask me about the one starring the TV cleaning ladies, best left alone that one.
My first panto of 2021 was at Above The Stag in Vauxhall, an exclusively LGBTQIA+ venue with a fabulous track record for producing great theatre and a stunning record for panto. I was excited to be back there but slightly daunted to discover that my seats were in the front row, I don’t exactly blend into the crowd at the best of times so front row in a small theatre was a recipe for being targeted – and I was. I don’t mind, it’s all part of the fun and this seasonal offering was most definitely FUN!
Gay panto has in the past left me cold, to much misogyny, too many non PC gags and to much shoddy “getting away with it” attitude. Let’s not go there either, let’s focus on this rich confection, larded with rude works, salacious gags and sprinkled with more than a bucketful of delicious campery. Yes, I loved it. Okay it was outrageously filthy from start to finish but why not, it is clearly marketed to an adult audience and I guess a gay one and their allies. If you’re not up for that then stay away, no one is forcing your arm.
The script is packed with rudery but also with satire, the government, the pandemic all come in for some well placed ribbing as do the attitudes of us all, twinks , bears… you name it, all get a thrashing. The production values are once again high, an excellent set from David Shields and brilliant animated projections from George Reeve and fabulous costumes too, especially for the dame. One exception there however, Queen Rat’s tail is wrong, but that is a small point in this excellent tale, did you see what I did there? Anyway, it’s behind her!
I love a panto that is packed with panto conventions, I like the audience shouting back, the slapstick, the sweetie throwing, a convention I have experienced being dropped for “health & safety” reasons, and I love an audience song. I did my best to join in with salacious lyrics but was somewhat hampered as, yes, it was me, I became the ‘butt’’ of all of Dame Sarah’s asides and had to go onstage to hold up the song sheet.
So on to the cast and let me start with that dizzy dame Sarah played with real comic skill by Matthew Baldwin, over sixty pantomimes under my belt I reckon Matthew Baldwin is top of the list, absolute genius in every sense, everything you might hope for from a Dame. Keanu Adolphus Johnson played her son Alex with amazing energy and charm, I think everyone fell in love with him, even before he ripped his top off. Jonny Peyton-Hill gave us his Dick, it’s a theatrical term, and was delightful as the faye and naive yet knowing Whittington, and there was an element of the very young Rick Mayall in his performance, that wiry and wayward sense of silliness. Nikki Biddington’s Queen rat was a blissful portrayal of the archetypal panto baddie and we hissed and booed even when she was belting out her big rock number. Bradley Warren’s dour undertaker Fitzwarren was splendid and by the second half he was displaying real skill and versatility, not a word used loosely when talking gay panto.
Despite a few technical sound issues in the first half, the opening scene, with superb choreography by Carole Todd, had the audience on side from the get-go and Andrew Beckett’s quick fire direction held us to the last tongue twisting, see it to find out what I mean by that, chorus of that saucy audience song.
It’s definitely one for the grown ups but saying that we grown ups could really enjoy revisiting our childhood in this delightful festive offering.
Above The Stag Theatre